There are approximately 2.5 million older adults in the U.S. with alcohol or drug problems, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. Despite its prevalence among seniors, however, substance abuse has been dubbed "an invisible epidemic" by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Why is awareness so low about this critical topic, and what can caregivers due to safeguard the seniors in their care? Read on for an overview of the issue, along with how caregivers can help aging loved ones suffering from alcohol and/or drug dependence.
Understanding Substance Abuse and Seniors
Says osteopathic geriatric psychiatrist Stephen Scheinthal, DO, "Substance abuse knows no boundary of age. Whether you are 20 or 80 years old, you may see drinking or taking drugs - whether legal or illegal - as a way of coping with grief, anxiety, depression or pain." According to SAMHSA, "Even as the number of older adults suffering from these disorders climbs, the situation remains underestimated, under-identified, under-diagnosed, and under-treated."
In fact, approximately 20-30% of people ages 75 to 85 have had drinking problems, while 3.6% of adults ages 60 to 64 have used illicit drugs, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, respectively.
While illicit drugs, like marijuana and heroin, may not be as much of an issue for seniors, the overuse of prescription medications to treat chronic illness may not only easily lead to abuse, but is also easy for everyone from doctors to caregivers to overlook because symptoms mimic those of numerous common medical and behavioral disorders among seniors, including everything from diabetes to dementia.
Other factors involved in the perpetuation of unaddressed substance abuse among seniors include lack of knowledge, inadequate research data, and rushed office visits.
While substance abuse is detrimental at any age, seniors are particularly vulnerable to its effects. Not only are the general effects of drugs and alcohol more significant in older adults, but seniors are also more likely to incur injuries with more severe side effects. Older adults are also at greater risk of experiencing dangerous drug interactions.
How Caregivers Can Help
The good news? There are several different treatment options when it comes to managing senior medications, including educating seniors about the risks they're taking to addiction support groups, addiction therapy, and addiction rehab. However, identifying the problem is the first step toward getting treatment.
So what should caregivers look for when attempting to determine whether seniors in their care may have a drug or alcohol problem? Warning signs include:
- solitary (or secret) drinking
- slurred speech and/or alcohol smell
- empty bottles around living space
- changes in personal appearance
- drinking-related rituals
- loss of interest in pleasurable activities
- drinking despite warning labels
- increased falling
- frequent use of tranquilizers
- memory loss, confusion, irritation and agitation
Filling prescriptions at multiple pharmacies and frequently changing physicians may also be signs of alcohol or substance abuse.
While substance abuse among seniors is a very real problem, caregivers can play a vital role in helping them address and overcome these issues. One last thing to keep in mind: Whichever course of treatment is necessary, clear communications and a respectful manner by the caregiving team are essential parts of the recovery process.
mmLearn.org offers a large library of free videos for caregivers of older adults, covering topics pertaining to senior care. Whether you are a healthcare professional or a family caregiver, if you are caring for an older adult, we know that you will find mmLearn.org an essential learning and guidance tool for all of your caregiver training needs. For more online training for caregivers, access our free database of online caregiver videos for additional information on critical caregiving issues including polypharmacy; "bad drugs" and medication errors; and medication management.